Moyers on Democracy

Remembering What America Might Have Been

What America Could Have Been

The coronavirus epidemic will have a lasting worldwide impact, to be sure, but it will have a unique native social impact as well, one equal to those brought about by the upheavals of the 1960s and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Already it’s changed the way we see ourselves, and our nationhood.

As we renounce a climate accord, allow medical bills to push us into bankruptcy, cage children and seal our borders, America First-ism has ceded our international leadership and prestige. And that was before greed, incompetence, bigotry and self-dealing reduced the federal apparatus to tin-cup beggary. While the president spins dangerous cure-all fantasies, we wheedle for face masks!

“If the plague is a test, its ruling political nexus ensured that the U.S. would fail it at a terrible cost in human lives,” Fintan O’Toole writes, in a scathing Irish Times column. “In the process, the idea of the U.S. as the world’s leading nation — an idea that has shaped the past century — has all but evaporated.”

A week after the September 11th attacks in 2001, Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon Carter declared, “I think it’s the end of the age of irony.” Carter’s comment was widely derided, yet it spoke to an undeniably compelling truth of the moment. The indelible images — of smoke rising and bodies falling in lower Manhattan, blackened concrete in Washington D.C., a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania desecrated with body parts, baby toys and laptops — shattered American complacency about the global toll of terrorism and disarmed humor, satirical or otherwise. (At least it did until Chris Rock wondered on Saturday Night Live in 2014 about the Freedom Tower that replaced the World Trade Center: “Who’s the corporate sponsor — Target?”)

So, perhaps it wasn’t the end of irony, but it was certainly a shock to the system, one that transcended even the death toll of 2,996.

Who, when this grim chapter finally has come to an end, will look to us for anything, most of all moral leadership.

Such seismic waves of social upheaval were not foreign to a generation — mine — that came of age in the furnace blast of the anti-war and civil rights movements. One consequence of those years might be called the end of the age of belief. The revelations of the Pentagon Papers, Watergate and the flood of documentation exposing FBI surveillance of American citizens, on the one hand, and the abdication of government oversight allowing rampant corporate malfeasance, on the other, inexorably obliterated the idea that our government was run in the interest of the public good.

Until then, Americans took comfort in the idea that, whatever our daily grievances, Washington basically operated in good faith. It functioned. By the end of the 1970s, that notion was dead.

The heroes of the new era were masters of the universe, corporate raiders, leveraged buyout specialists and other federally sanctioned swindlers bent on dismantling the liberal order. Government was of the 1%, by the 1% and for the 1%. Pervasive cynicism bloomed in such acidic soil — and continues to flourish today. That certainly is one way of understanding the triumph of Trumpism.

What has died since the coronavirus began cutting its global swath is the notion — central to our collective identity — of American exceptionalism. As George Packer writes in The Atlantic, “Every morning in the endless month of March, Americans woke up to find themselves citizens of a failed state.” The epidemic, he said, has reduced us to “a beggar nation in utter chaos.”

This phenomenon is more than the natural extension of our earlier sense that the federal government no longer functions on behalf of us all. The virus as metaphor couldn’t be more apt (sorry Susan Sontag), for it undermined the dearly held notion that the United States occupies a special, deity-endowed place in the world as a beacon to all others.

That idea of specialness, historically appropriated by religious, not political, entities, was first applied to the United States with intentional irony by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century. (It was inevitably tied, as I learned in grade school, to the concept of Manifest Destiny, which to a sixth-grader explained God’s plan that white Europeans “discover” a “New World,” usurp the land, perpetrate genocide on its inhabitants, enslave peoples from an entirely different continent and lay waste its natural riches to provide goods and commodities for the Motherland.)

American exceptionalism would be further elaborated, dismissively, by Joseph Stalin in the 20th century before being proudly rehabilitated by Ronald Reagan (appropriating Jesus’s image of a “shining city upon a hill”) and, in the 21st century, Barack Obama.

Credit the internet with leading us to finally understand how fragile the concept of citizenship really is, and how even leaders with good intentions are threatened by a consumerist conspiracy to turn the world into one big Amazon shopping basket. We have borne out what so impressed Tocqueville more than a century ago: Not American idealism; on the contrary, what struck him was our obsession with accumulation of wealth as the sole factor giving meaning to life.

… what struck [Tocqueville] was our obsession with accumulation of wealth as the sole factor giving meaning to life…

Until the post-post-War era of optimism and white prosperity, we could take comfort in the belief that the government we created was on our side. Never mind Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, Woodie Guthrie and Paul Robeson, among the demurrers, spitting in the wind.

Until the social ravaging that culminated in the financial collapse of 2008, we believed that the government we created functioned. Joseph Heller and Stanley Kubrick, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jon Stewart and his spawn in a new generation, showed us how naïve we were. But their words pale in light of the lessons of the pandemic.

Today, under a president who has briefly turned, from promoting racism and xenophobia during an immigrant crisis, to urging price gouging and lethal competition among states for essential equipment during a devastating public health emergency, we’ve surrendered the last precious part of our identity: that we are special, that we continue to be a model for other nations to emulate.

Who, when this grim chapter finally has come to an end, will look to us for anything, most of all moral leadership?

This post first appeared on Cognoscenti. Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook and Twitter.

Jeremy Gerard

Jeremy Gerard is a widely published critic and reporter on culture, politics and human-rights issues. He has been a staff writer at Bloomberg News, New York magazine and the New York Times.